How we tested
If chicken broth is supposed to taste like chicken, and beef broth like beef, it stands to reason that vegetable broth should taste like vegetables. After all, this ingredient’s core purpose is the same as that of any other broth: to augment the flavors of and add depth to dishes such as soups, stews, sauces, and risottos. Vegetable broth is also often called on as a meatless stand-in for the chicken or beef kind—and while it shouldn’t taste like meat, it should provide a complex, balanced, unassuming backbone of flavor to a wide range of dishes.
The problem is that most commercial vegetable broths do neither of those things. When we tasted 10 products several years ago, we found that the vast majority were awful—sour, cloyingly sweet, or bitter. In fact, we could recommend only one product from that tasting, a broth from Swanson that was loaded with salt (940 milligrams per cup, about 40 percent of your daily allowance) and a slew of flavor-boosting additives.
Since then, however, dozens more vegetable broth products have popped up on supermarket shelves. Like commercial meat-based broths, these are sold not just in liquid form but also as powders, pastes, concentrates, and cubes. Would any of these new products be worthier of a place in our pantry?
Overwhelmed by the options, we scooped up 25 nationally available products that represented every style category. (We also held a separate tasting of low-sodium vegetable broths; see related content.) Most were billed as vegetable broths, while four bore labels reading “no chicken” or “vegan chicken flavored,” indicating that they are engineered to be meatless imitations of poultry-based products. We then narrowed the pack, eliminating broths that had more than 750 milligrams of sodium per serving and holding taste-offs within brands. In the end, we had 10 finalists, which we sampled warmed up straight from the package (when products needed to be reconstituted, we followed manufacturer directions), as well as in vegetable soup and Parmesan risotto. The last application, where the broth reduces considerably during cooking, would be a good measure of its flavor when concentrated.
Our hope that these products were any better than the last lot dimmed with our first sips of plain broth. Though the broths ranged dramatically in color and body, in the main they fell into two broad flavor categories: those that tasted “weirdly savory,” with “super MSG impact,” and those with actual vegetable flavor, albeit mostly unappealing. At best, these latter broths tasted bland (like “dishwater”); at worst, they ranged from overly bitter to horribly sweet (like “stewed socks and sugar”) to downright sour (like “old tomatoes”). Once added to recipes, however, some broths redeemed themselves. Products that tasted like “umami bombs” sampled plain made both soup and risotto taste “savory” and “well seasoned,” with “good depth.” Others that tasted only “vaguely” of vegetables on their own moved into an effective supporting role, giving soup “nicely balanced” vegetable flavor.
When we examined their labels to see what went into these products, what was striking was that the product we liked most in recipes contained only a smattering of vegetables. At the same time, many of the broths we either soundly disliked or had serious reservations about were traditional liquid broths with lots of vegetables positioned high on their ingredient lists. Could it actually be that more vegetables make bad commercial broth?
In the Mix
According to industry experts we spoke to, the answer is yes. Capturing appealing vegetable flavor in processed food turns out to be difficult. First, the bitter taste in certain fresh vegetables and herbs, such as celery and parsley, becomes more noticeable when these vegetables are concentrated during processing. Broths sold in liquid form can also oxidize, creating sour, musty off-flavors. In addition, nearly all the flavor of vegetables is due to volatile aroma molecules that are vulnerable to dissipating in liquid broths, leaving the flavor weak.
To offset bitter, sour notes and add flavor, some manufacturers load up their products with salt and/or sweeteners. Others increase sweetness by using vegetables that are naturally high in sugar. But as the bottom-ranked broth demonstrated, this strategy can backfire. With carrots, tomatoes, and red peppers in the mix, it had the highest amount of sugar (and the lowest amount of salt) in the lineup and tasted like “corn syrup.”
So what did our winner use to flavor its product if not lots of vegetables? For starters, maltodextrin, a common food additive used to add bulk as well as ensure even distribution of flavors. Next came salt and yeast extract, a foodstuff derived from the cells of fresh yeast. It has a deeply savory taste in its own right and is also full of glutamates and nucleotides, which bring an umami boost to other foods. While this product didn’t add vegetable undertones, it did a good job of bringing savory depth to soup and risotto. We can also recommend a liquid stock, which brought some savoriness and a little more vegetable flavor to recipes, and a paste which, with the help of yeast extract, made food taste “robust” as well as “rich and meaty without tasting like beef.”
Each of these products is undeniably convenient to use. But considering that our Cook's Illustrated recipe for homemade vegetable concentrate is quick, inexpensive, makes enough concentrate for 7 quarts of broth, and—most important of all—boasts complex, well-rounded vegetable flavor, we’ll keep the commercial stuff on hand only for emergencies.
We tasted 10 top-selling national supermarket vegetable and nonmeat broth products (compiled from data from IRi, a Chicago market research firm) after eliminating another 15 products in preliminary tastings and disqualifying any product with more than 750 milligrams of sodium per 1-cup serving, including Orrington Farms Broth Base & Seasoning, Vegetable Flavored; Orrington Farms Vegan Vegetable Broth Base; Orrington Farms Vegetable Flavored Base & Seasoning Paste; Better Than Bouillon Vegetable Base; Better Than Bouillon Organic Vegetable Base; Better Than Bouillon Vegetarian No-Chicken Base; Swanson Vegetable Cooking Stock; Edward & Sons Not-Chick’n Natural Bouillon Cubes; Edward & Sons Garden Vegetable Natural Bouillon Cubes; Rapunzel Vegetable Bouillon with Herbs; Rapunzel Vegetable Bouillon with Sea Salt; Rapunzel Vegetable Broth; Imagine Organic Vegetable Broth; Imagine Organic Vegetable Cooking Stock; and Herb-Ox Vegetable Flavor Bouillon Cubes.
Tasters sampled the final lineup plain and in vegetable soup and Parmesan risotto, rating broths on flavor, saltiness, any off-flavors, and overall appeal. Results of the soup and risotto tastings were averaged and appear in order of preference. Nutritional data for a 1-cup serving is taken from product labels.